Drawing attention to the current solar (PV) market in Malawi, and the poor quality of products that are being purchased, Kristine Sinclair, together with Michael Sinclair, highlight the current issue that plagues the industry.
In Malawi, and other places in Africa, the markets are flooded with extraordinarily poor quality and counterfeit imported solar photovoltaic (PV) modules and equipment.
Malawi is one of the least developed countries in the world; less than 10% of the overall population and less than 1% of the rural population has access to the National Electric Grid . Because of this, consumer demand is strong for technologies like solar PV that can generate off-grid electricity.
To address this demand retailers throughout Mzuzu, the third-largest city in Malawi, carry a wide variety of solar technology products; from solar panels and LED lights to batteries, inverters and charge controllers.
Sold solar material issues identified
However, even a cursory inspection of the inventory of solar panels for sale in Mzuzu uncovers catastrophic issues, which will almost certainly affect product performance and reliability.
More troubling observations involve deliberate deception of consumers by, for example, mixing real cells with fake cells in order to sell larger modules which appear more valuable.
Dr Collen Zalengera is the Head of the Department of Energy Studies at Mzuzu University and oversees the Test and Training Centre for Renewable Energy Technologies (TCRET). Among other activities, TCRET is tasked with testing PV products for the Malawi Bureau of Standards (MBS) to ensure they comply with national standards.
Dr Zalengera is concerned about the ubiquity of low quality solar modules and notes that “even though TCRET is in Mzuzu, these [fraudulent] modules are for sale right here on our doorstep.”
He goes on to say that the availability of these modules “puts the renewable energy industry in disrepute.”
Screening your solar equipment
The Zayed Energy & Ecology Centre (ZEEC) in the Nkhata Bay District of Malawi has published a free manual  (can be found at http://www.zayedenergyecologycentre.org/#!publications-1/a9rwx) for anyone seeking further information on how to screen for several solar module defects without using any equipment.
Gail Swithenbank, the founder and Managing Director of ZEEC understands the challenges facing Malawians:
“[this issue is] impacting the adoption of solar [power] in Malawi – people save for a year to buy a solar panel and when it stops working people lose confidence in a technology that they desperately need.”
These observations are consistent with similar reports of fake solar modules that have surfaced in other African countries including Tanzania and Zimbabwe , , as well as the overall state of substandard electronic consumer products in Africa .
Michael Sinclair is the former Director of Optical Engineering at Morgan Solar Inc. in Toronto, Canada. Michael spent his 6 years at Morgan Solar in product development and made significant contributions in innovation, product design, reliability testing and manufacturing. Michael holds an Honours B.Sc from the University of Waterloo in Mechatronics Engineering and Management Science.
He is currently volunteering for the Zayed Energy and Ecology Centre in Malawi with aspirations to facilitate the adoption of distributed energy in the developing world.
Kristine (Drew) Sinclair has over 7 years of experience in the field of solar photovoltaics, including as the Lead Scientist, Semiconductor Devices at Morgan Solar Inc. in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and as a Process and Development Engineer at the New and Renewable Energy Centre in the UK. Sinclair is currently volunteering at the Zayed Energy and Ecology Centre in Malawi, where she uses solar photovoltaic expertise to enhance activities and services. Sinclair holds an Honours B.Sc. from the University of Waterloo in Chemical Physics, and a dual-award M.Sc. and M.Eng. in Functionalized Advanced Materials and Engineering. Her Masters thesis project was conducted at the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems in the area of high-efficiency silicon photovoltaics.
 “Concept Paper for the Energy Sector: Promoting Public Private Partnerships in Electricity Generation for Rural Areas,” World Bank Millennium Challenge Account – Malawi Country Office, Lilongwe, 2009.
 K. Sinclair and M. Sinclair, “Silicon Solar Module Visual Inspection Guide: Catalogue of Defects to be used as a Screening Tool,” Zayed Energy and Ecology Centre, Nkhata Bay District, Malawi, Jun. 2016.
 “Tanzania: Fake Solar Panels On Sale – allAfrica.com,” 25-May-2016.
 “‘Tougher laws, new solar lab to weed out counterfeit’ | The Herald,” 25-May-2016. [Online]. Available: http://www.herald.co.zw/tougher-laws-new-solar-lab-to-weed-out-counterfeit-2/. [Accessed: 25-May-2016].
 “Schneider Electric releases the first survey on counterfeit electrical products in Africa |Schneider Electric | BiztechAfrica Press Office.” [Online]. Available: http://www.biztechafrica.com/press/schneider-electric/article/schneider-electric-releases-first-survey-counterfe/9907/. [Accessed: 25-May-2016].